Beware: The Shady Side of New Publishing Opportunities

Once upon a time, there was vanity publishing.

Remember?  Those were the days when self-publishing had a very bad rap.

Not so much because the books’ quality was shaky (though that tended to be true), nor even because authors had to pay to have them published (though that was indeed frowned upon), but mainly because of the way the firms offering self-publishing services operated.

These firms cut a very nice profit offering everything from proofing to interior and cover design and could earn even more by proposing pricey add-ons, like copy-editing and developmental editing.  Some would even encourage authors to buy into these add-ons by telling them their books had qualified to be nominated for an award but would only be eligible to win if they purchased these extra services.  This was — and still is — considered particularly slimy and underhanded. All the more so since many authors, vulnerable in their eagerness for recognition after years of rejection, readily opted in.

Now that self-publishing has been officially de-stigmatized and it’s becoming increasingly acceptable for authors to pay for their books’ production, cottage industries are cropping up around the needs this has created: editing, page and cover design, eReader formatting, distribution to brick-and-mortar shops, marketing, promotion and more.

On one hand, this opens up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity for both authors and publishing-world entrepreneurs. On the other hand, it has given way to a shady side worthy of old stigmas that all authors should be aware of.

On this shady side, service providers don’t just offer add-ons, but either require them or make it very difficult for authors to turn them down.  For example, apublishing provider who requires authors to sign up and pay for a developmental editor before submitting or re-submitting work.  Or who recommends adamantly that authors hire an independent publicist to promote their books.

This becomes especially dubious when the firm or person offering said add-ons urges — or even requires — authors to choose specific providers:  The copy-editor who pushes her clients toward a particular interior designer, claiming to know for a fact that “he’s the best person for the job” or insisting that working with that designer will help her to do her own job more effectively.  The distributor who urges first-time authors to hire his preferred PR firm, insisting that said firm “has a lot of experience with debuts” (a phrase that has no real meaning) so is uniquely suited to the job.

This is where I send out my own plea to authors: BEWARE!  While entrepreneurship and initiatives to grow new businesses are healthy and referrals can be a huge help to those who receive them, there’s a big difference between making referrals, and exerting pressure.  When any level of pressure, urging or even strong, persistent encouragement is involved, you must absolutely think twice.

There are and always will be business people whose singular focus on profit does not take authors’ best interest into account.  If you are being strongly urged by somebody to pick a specific provider, there could be any number of ulterior motives at play.

Most often — I’m sorry to report — is the nefarious practice of kickbacks.  I’ve seen it time and again: a copy-editor, for example, has a “preferred provider” deal with, say, a website designer in which she receives a kickback in the form of a percentage of any income her referrals lead to.

Business partnerships are another possible motive.  Some firms may actually be owned by, or operate in conjunction with, other firms in a different but related field.  They share resources and although they have different fundamental missions, they offer one another support on the path toward growth and share the profits.  So they have a vested interest making sure clients on one side of the partnership are cross-sold services on the other side, too.

Not that profit is at all a dirty word.  It makes the economy go round and keeps all of us employed, fed and clothed.  I have tremendous respect for business leaders, large and small.  And referrals and preferred relationships are a normal part of the business environment.

The problem arises when the pressure is hard to resist and leads authors — who are particularly susceptible due to the hopes, dreams and emotions at stake — to make choices that may not necessarily the best fit for them personally or may not really be a worthy investment.  Then pay for them out of their pockets!

Which smacks a bit of the frowned-upon vanity publishing world.